Modern Film and Desire (Nebraska, Blue Jasmine, Inside Llewyn Davis)
Desire and Western Culture
Cupidity, desire, covetousness, avarice, craving, lust, longing—they all have a long history in Western culture.
The Old Testament is full of larger-than-life characters either wanting more from life outside the boundaries of what an Old Testament God would sanction (Adam and Eve) or allowing themselves to pursue forbidden desires (the male Israelites who used prostitutes and were avenged by God with a plague). Or longing attachment to a city (Sodom) by Lot’s wife who is morphed into a pillar of salt for turning around to see the destruction of the city (There is a hint of forbidden curiosity here, not unlike the fatal curiosity of Eve who is tempted by the devil to eat of the Tree of Knowledge)
And we have, in the many revenge tragedies of the English Renaissance, classic examples of thwarted desire (Macbeth, Richard III, Othello).
Even American writers have certainly given us a long list of desire-narratives from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s haunting novel of fatal attraction, The Great Gatsby, to Theodore Dreiser’s epic tragedy of American greed, An American Tragedy. The two contemporary television series, Madmen and Breaking Bad, also keep reminding us that the frantic pursuit of desire is not without its dark psychological descents.
While the American culture keeps telling us to acquire, to fulfill our every desire, there are equally forceful writers in America telling us, in one way or another, that desire can, indeed, do us in.
Two recent American films have been added to the long list of narratives about where our culture places desire as a psychological and dramatic value: Blue Jasmine and Nebraska.
A third film, Inside Llewyn Davis, offers us a more modern view of reality, one in which desire is typically muted.
Nebraska has a slightly off-beat approach to craving and desire. It is a road narrative about a son taking his aging father, Woody, to cash in on a mythical one million dollar sweepstakes prize. The father’s intent is to use the money to buy a pick-up truck to leave to his son.
On their journey, they stop in Woody’s hometown to visit his brother’s family and to hang out in a couple of the local bars. Once his family and an old business partner find out about the mythical sweepstakes prize, they start to pressure Woody for what they claim are some old debts he owes them.
It is at this point that the movie begins to bear an archetypal resemblance to the ancient folk-tales of greed and avarice. The two cousins, in particular, come close to resembling all of the Falstaffian low-life characters that inhabit so many of Shakespeare’s comedies, characters out for a good time, usually at somebody else’s expense.
After Woody arrives to pick up his sweepstakes prize and finds out he didn’t win, the son buys a used pick-up truck and lets the father drive through his hometown to show off. In spite of knowing that the father’s odyssey is an illusion, the son defers to his father’s need for some kind of dignity.
The film gives us a poignant lesson in how adult children sometimes need to escort their aging parents into their final innocent fantasies in spite of how unreal they may be (The final scene of the father driving the pick-up truck through his home town is a tender, dramatic antidote to the greed shown by his brother’s family).
In the end, the story rests less on the desire-driven pursuit of an illusion than on the human journey of a father and a son discovering just how deep the well of human kindness can go.
Blue Jasmine: Desire as a Social Construct
Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, returns us, somewhat, to a world in which life is lived large. Where desire is amply fulfilled with servant-served dinners, limousines, pools, and diamond-studded necklaces. Jasmine, the central character, is a Park-Avenue socialite whose husband, a Berny Madoff-like character, becomes involved in shady business deals and sexual infidelities.
After her husband, Hal, is imprisoned, and eventually commits suicide, she returns to her sister, Ginger, in San Franciso (Jasmine and Ginger, were both adopted by the same woman, suggesting, even in their childhood relationship, they were more of a social construct, exacerbated even more when Jasmine marries a Park-Avenue faux entrepreneur).
Jasmine has lost everything, including her son, who eventually tells her he wants nothing to do with her (A plot revelation here: The son finds out that Jasmine turned her husband in to the FBI in her rage over her husband’s infidelities).
In spite of having become destitute and an alcoholic, she continues to frame her life in delusional thinking. She works as a receptionist in a dentist’s office, a “mindless job” she promised herself never to do. She eventually walks out after the dentist physically harasses her. She fails to finish a night-school computer course. And then, she deludes herself into believing that she has interior-decorating talents and all the right social skills to be a match for a wealthy politician she meets at a party.
Her psychological scam becomes public when she and the politician run into Ginger’s first husband who reminds Jasmine that her husband, Hal, used their lottery-won money in another fraudulent investment.
She ultimately ends up on a park bench talking to herself.
Much of Woody Allen’s film canon, in one way or another, is about class —-social, intellectual, educational, psychological, even linguistic. In spite of much of the self-deprecating humor of his films, Allen’s psychological/social environment seems to be more about relationships defined by one’s membership in a particular class than on any deep tragic flaws.
Jasmine, in many ways, is a social construct. Her desires all fall within the narrow framework of money and social status. Once that is dismantled, she has no identity. And it is difficult, if not impossible, to really fall from grace, for the grace she falls from is merely a mythical sand castle of fleeting wealth and status.
Inside Llewyn Davis and Muted Desire
Inside Llewyn Davis is a story about a 1960s Greenwich-Village folk singer (the winter of 1961, to be exact). Davis is a loser, a guy who can never seem to find a solid niche as a folk singer.
He hires an aging, jaded agent who has to be yelled into paying attention to Davis. He sleeps on other people’s couches. He’s unable to afford a winter coat. He loses a marmalade-streaked cat and then believes he finds it, only to discover from the cat’s owner that it’s not the right cat. He may have gotten an ex-girlfriend pregnant (the uncertainty here suggests that Llewyn can’t even guarantee any fidelity from women). He hooks up with another loser folk-singer. He hitches a ride to Chicago with a heroin-addict jazz singer and former-actor-turned-driver. He auditions at a famous folk-singer venue for the owner who simply says to him, “I don’t see much money here.”
He makes a futile attempt to join the Merchant Marines (a job his demented father once had), only to find out that his records have been discarded and he’s too late to sign up.
At the end of the film, the Coen brothers bring us back to the beginning of the story in a kind of eternal-return-archetypal moment when Davis is last seen in an alley in back of a music gig where he has just listened to Bob Dylan perform. As in the first scene of the film, he is knocked down by a member of the audience avenging an insult that Davis made (a variation of the opening image with a slightly different take here).
This time, Davis stays on the ground.
What I find fascinating about the Coen Brothers film here is that we get an insight into the 1960s folk-singing culture.
I do not mean to suggest here that the folk-singer culture is what the Coen Brothers film is all about, but it is a kind of mise-en-scène that makes sure any kind of emotional intensity doesn’t get out of control. Llewyn Davis himself becomes a kind of brooding caricature of the folk-song culture—understated, restrained, and replete with quiet, almost detached observations about the world and personal relationships (The film’s austere settings—an apartment, a couch, a recording studio, a kitchen, the inside of a car, and even the smoke-filled basement-bar venues of the folk singers—also help to tighten the reins of passion, which the Coen Brothers defer to irony and detached condescension, their signature psychological MOs).
As a character, Llewyn Davis is more like the adolescent who just happens to have a talent but is devoid of any passion-in-the-belly. He is incapable of creating any grand moment in his life. If anything, reality just seems to happen to him—a singing partner who commits suicide, a girlfriend who gets pregnant, a chance meeting with a heroin-addict jazz singer, a fatal deer accident on the road, an outraged husband, his own failure to pay his Merchant Marine dues, a father in a nursing home, a sister who throws away his documents.
The toughest cut of all for Davis is to find out that there’s a new kid on the block, Bob Dylan. It would be an understatement, of its own to, say that the Coen Brothers wanted Llewyn Davis to experience his last humiliation.
In many ways, Llewyn Davis is an archetypal carry-over of the 1950s existential anti-heroes who the French existentialists were so good at trademarking—bored, careless, passive, and often motiveless beyond the moment. (One gets that sense when Llewyn decides to join the Merchant Marines, not because he has some grand passion to see the world but as a default plan when his music career doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.)
It would be safe to say that Llewyn Davis would never sacrifice any part of his being for an impressive obituary. Not unlike the telling image of Davis on a subway, his life is carried along by a stream of events he seems to be a passive victim of, rather than an as active participant.
Accordingly, there is no epic tragedy in Davis’s life. Only a brief interlude between fuck-ups.
The Coen Brothers have become the masters of a modern sensibility that does not want to take life too seriously. Desire and craving, by their absence in the emotional repertoire of a Coen film, seem to be associated with some ancien regime, some archaic, romantic time when heroes died for noble causes, when lovers died tragically in each other’s arms, when avenging villains dismembered their enemies. The Coens will have none of it.
Two Faces of Desire: Classical Western Tradition and Modernity
However, desire still seems to be one of those psychological realities that never loses its edge. In the Western classical traditions, it is used by countless artists, writers, and philosophers to define the essence of human nature. Even in its out-of-control forms, it teaches us something about the fragile nature of our psyches that can easily descend into its dark rapture. And desire still rears its ugly head in cable tv series and mainstream American films and fiction.
When desire is completely deferred to, but never satiated in a Western, consumer-driven culture, artists like the Coen Brothers will be here to remind us what it’s like to live in a world where self-referential irony and detachment, not desire-driven tragedy, take charge.